Expectant moms already have plenty to worry about including keeping up with medical appointments and setting up a nursery. However, one very easy and vitally important thing to do for a healthy baby is to make sure pregnant and nursing women get enough iodine.
Iodine is an essential element in healthy human life, enabling the function of thyroid glands to produce needed hormones for proper metabolism. When children in the womb don’t get enough iodine from their mother, fetal brain development is impaired. During pregnancy, iodine deficiency can cause a child to develop learning disabilities and mental retardation as well as developmental problems affecting his speech, hearing and growth.
“Iodine deficiency disorder (IDD) is the single greatest cause of preventable mental retardation,” says Kul Gautam, the former deputy executive director of UNICEF. “Severe deficiencies cause cretinism, stillbirth and miscarriage. But even mild deficiency can significantly affect the learning ability of populations. Scientific evidence shows alarming effects of IDD. Even a moderate deficiency, especially in pregnant women and infants, lowers their intelligence by 10-15 IQ points.”
Historically, populations got iodine naturally from certain foods, especially seafood, plants grown where soil contains iodine and the meat of animals whose forage grows in such soils. However, natural weathering and erosion can leach iodine from the soil over time leaving it deficient. Plants and animals raised in areas with iodine-deficient soil will be poor sources of iodine in the human diet and the animals themselves will be less healthy and productive.
To help address iodine deficiency, salt producers in the United States cooperated with public health authorities starting almost a century ago to add iodine to table salt and made both iodized and plain salt available to consumers at the same price. Today, about 70 percent of the table salt sold in the United States is iodized. In fact, salt has been and remains the primary source for iodine in the American diet. The effect of this public health initiative has been to virtually eliminate the incidence of thyroid related illness, including goiters.
Today Americans are consuming less and less iodine. Salt used in processed foods is mostly not iodized and given that people are cooking less at home and buying either restaurant or processed foods, iodine intakes in the U.S. have declined more than 37 percent from about 250 micrograms/day to 157 micrograms/day since the 1970s.
“Pregnant women need to increase their iodine intake,” says Dr. Elizabeth Pearce, associate professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. “Women who are breastfeeding also need higher iodine intake, since iodine is transported into breast milk, where it is important for infant nutrition. Pregnant women need 220 micrograms iodine every day. Breastfeeding mothers need 290 micrograms daily. These levels are higher than the 150 micrograms daily recommended for most adults … pregnant women and women of childbearing age should eat a varied diet rich in iodine-containing foods, such as fish and milk, and should choose iodized salt over non-iodized salt.”
Medical professionals including the American Academy of Pediatrics and The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE) have also started to recommend iodine supplements for women of childbearing age particularly if they are pregnant or breast feeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics additionally warned that iodine deficiency for pregnant women or nursing mothers makes mother and child more vulnerable to some pollutants found in the environment such as nitrates, thiocyanates and perchlorates.
Iodized salt has been one of the greatest and most economical public health successes and it continues to help raise healthy, smart children.